On The Road

Apr 12, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Mississippi is one of those rivers that takes on all comers. Children are easy marks. Just standing them along the shore with a stick to wrinkle the water is all it takes. Fishermen are easy, too. All fishing poles have hooks at both ends, and who pulls in whom is an open question.

Cool grownups are a bit harder. It might take the Mississippi a minute or two to get to them, as in the following story.

No cooler grownup existed in the late 1950s than Jack Kerouac, who first used the term Beat Generation to describe himself and his friends who had been beaten down by America's business culture, but who were also marching to the new beat of jazz and bop—cool dudes indeed. Marching above all the shallow culture that was the United States.

In 1957, Kerouac published his most famous book, On the Road, a thinly fictionalized account of a cool hitchhiking-sex-and- drug-filled trip Kerouac and friends had taken across the United States. The narrator of the book, Sal Paradise, and his friends arrived in Illinois broke. Forced to hitchhike, they are offered a ride by a middle-aged woman much too old for them, but a ride is a ride.

Across Illinois come the beats, too cool to appreciate the Illinois prairie and the small towns. Sal is driving when they approach Rock Island and head for the bridge to Davenport, Iowa. For the first time, he sees the Mississippi, and the cool beat disappears. "I saw for the first time in my life my beloved Mississippi River," he says, "dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself." For a moment it sounds like the same reverence Huck Finn felt for the brown waters.

On the other side, he remembers how cool he is, and regains his above-it-all view of the landscape full of farmer cars. He is picked up by a "great big tough truckdriver with popping eyes," and heads west across Iowa, too far away to hear the sounds the Mississippi is making back in the valley, a sound suspiciously like a chuckle.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.